Kunichika, Nakamura Kantaro I and Bando Hikosaburo V in Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Nakamura Kantaro I and Bando Hikosaburo V in Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba, 1863. Oban diptych.

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This is a tremendous diptych print by the great master of kabuki theatre prints, Kunichika. What makes this print so special is how early in his career it is and how beautifully preserved it is. Indeed many of Kunichika’s early prints suffered from poor quality production… a consequence, presumably, of austerity bought on by the civil revolutions of the early 1860’s. A parallel might be found with the poor quality of books and publications in Europe immediately after the second world war.

No such problems with this fine print. The colours sparkle and the block cutting is outstanding. The style of the print is so like his master and teacher Kunisada as to be nearly indistinguishable. The print shows three actors: Nakamura Kantaro I as Hiroku, Bando Hikosaburo V in the centre as  Mitsugi and Sawamura Tanosuke III as Aburaya Okon.

They are acting in the very famous play, Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba. The plot is concerned with a cursed blade which once used insists on being used and used again until it is sheathed.… the print shows the denouement of the performance described here in the website kabuki21

The stage revolves to show an inner courtyard of the Aburaya, where the Ise Dances of the title, which were earlier requested by the villains as an entertainment, are taking place. The carnage sweeps into the courtyard, and the dancers flee in terror. There follows a scene of Kabuki's "beautiful cruelty", in which, posing aesthetically, Iwaji and Kitaroku are repeatedly injured and eventually killed by the berserk blade, still in Mitsugi's grasp. Eventually the bloodlust has run its course, but the exhausted Mitsugi cannot let go of the sword despite repeated efforts to do so, until finally he strikes his elbow on the ground, thereby dislodging it from his grasp.

Okon enters, and is lucky to escape with her life as Mitsugi reaches for the sword once more. But the curse has run its course, and Okon is able to give Mitsugi the certificate of authenticity, and explains that her earlier harsh words were only intended in order to obtain it, and that she has been on his side all along. But Mitsugi, amazingly considering what has just happened, still thinks he has lost the Shimosaka sword itself and is on the point of committing seppuku in atonement, when Kisuke arrives to clarify the situation. Mitsugi looks more carefully at the blade, and despite all the dead, the play is deemed to have a happy ending since the sword and its certificate of authenticity can be returned to Manjirô, and Mitsugi and Okon are reconciled.

Kunichika shows the anti-hero Mitsugi in the centre with the cursed blade held aloft and the courtesan, Okon on the left. Particularly brilliant is the rendering of the night time Yoshiwara scenery behind the struggling figures.

A fine and early Kunichika, colour, condition and impression are all fine, some slight trimming.

Publisher: Izutsuya Shôkichi.

36cm x 51cm.